‘Till’ Star Danielle Deadwyler Says Playing Emmett Till’s Mother Required ‘Complete Attention and Reverence’

TheWrap magazine: The role, Deadwyler says, was “drenched with a particular kind of historical and present trauma”

Danielle Deadwyler
Danielle Deadwyler

This story about “Till” star Danielle Deadwyler first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

You may well find that you can’t quite shake the haunted look in Danielle Deadwyler’s eyes in “Till” or forget about her anguished cries of grief. As Mamie Till-Mobley, whose civil rights activism was born from the blood of the brutal murder of her 14-year-old son Emmett, Deadwyler is masterful, bringing nuance to a woman whose pain was unimaginable and whose resolve to make change from her tragedy was unrivaled. To step into such a role was nothing if not intimidating — and while the actress didn’t hesitate to take the job, she knew it also required some caution.

“There was a need to give it utter and complete attention and reverence,” Deadwyler said. “I couldn’t rush the way you sometimes read scripts. You know that it is drenched with a particular kind of historical and present trauma, so I couldn’t go into it the same way. It’s not fear, it’s not hesitation. It’s just deliberate, intentional investigation and consideration of the potentials of the project.”

Danielle Deadwyler in "Till"
Danielle Deadwyler in “Till”

The wrenching role comes on the heels of another powerhouse performance from Deadwyler. In the critically acclaimed limited series “Station Eleven,” which debuted in December 2021, Deadwyler played Miranda Carroll, a singularly focused artist who creates a graphic novel that, in the aftermath of a superflu-fueled global pandemic, grows far beyond what she could have imagined. Deadwyler embodied a creator with an exacting eye and an unforgiving vision who can see all the failures in herself and those around her, all the pain and the hurt of the world at large, and who carries on despite it all.

The words written by series creator Patrick Somerville and his team are important, but what echoes in quiet moments is Deadwyler’s voice, her delivery. It’s resigned and quiet, drawing you forward and making your heart pound as though someone has their mouth pressed against your ear and is furiously whispering secrets you’re not sure you want to know.

While the impact can be similar, every project is obviously different in its physical and mental challenges, Deadwyler said. Where “Station Eleven” asked for subtlety, the 2021 Western “The Harder They Fall” had her riding horses and firing weapons and the drama series “From Scratch” had her processing grief. And then there was “Till.”

“We’re talking about hardcore mourning, hardcore tension,” said Deadwyler, who has a 13-year-old son. “I know how I’ve worked in the past — be it performance art or theater, the impact of things on my body is deeply resonant and visible. I wanted to take (the script) in and know what that journey looked like. I wanted to take in what the historical consideration meant and look at the continuum, and I wanted to look at what that meant for my family.”

Part of Deadwyler’s commitment to the project was due to director Chinonye Chukwu, with whom she felt an immediate connection and alignment of vision. Their first meeting, Deadwyler said, involved “just hitting the conversation with honesty about what it means to be a mournful Black mother in this contemporary space, and then contextualizing that with the historical space that Mamie lived in. Talking about what it means to dig into who Mamie is, what is the intention, the public and private nature of what it means to be a Black woman laboring in all of the ways. We were a mirror in that regard. And that’s key: I gotta trust my director.”

Danielle Deadwyler in "Till"
Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in “Till” (Orion)

Together, the women found the intentionality in Mamie, as her worldview shifts and she goes from seeking justice for her son to working for Black Americans across the country in the growing civil rights movement. They also turned the set into a safe space that allowed Deadwyler to explore the harrowing places that were key to honoring Mamie and Emmett. That meant having a therapist on hand daily. Deadwyler didn’t take advantage of the resource, but she knew many fellow cast and crew members did and she was grateful they had access to that care.

Deadwyler considered herself forewarned and forearmed when it came to what the role would require of her. She told her own therapist immediately upon accepting the part that she would need support. “I said, ‘I need to move through this differently. I need to be able to come out the other end.’ Because I have a child. People forget there’s an athleticism, a physical core and an emotional quality to this work, the same as an NFL player or NBA player or WNBA player or any of that shit. It’s the body and the mind working in tandem, and they both have to be supported,” Deadwyler said.

“I was going to acupuncture, I was going to the chiropractor, I did physical therapy after we finished because I needed a little bit more support. One of my therapists said, the body doesn’t care that (acting) is seemingly pretend, because it’s not. These qualities are happening in real time to your nervous system.”

If there is a feeling that unites many of Deadwyler’s characters, it is a shared clarity about themselves and the world they exist in. That quality comes up so often that it makes sense to wonder if the actress herself shares such a keen perception of her surroundings.

“It’s shifting, it’s always shifting,” Deadwyler said. “I think there are people like Miranda and Mamie, one who set her own world on fire and one who had her world set afire, but both had to come into community and understanding in a different way. They came to a graceful and compassionate place that was beyond themselves. It’s a deep dive into the dark to come to whatever the other side feels like. I’m trying. I try every day.”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Corina Marie for TheWrap